Saturday October 14, 2006
It’s a tall order, but at the moment I’m teaching a philosophy course at Staffordshire University on the meaning of life. I’ve been given free rein to teach the course how I like, so I tore up the course I had been given (a horrible stodgy trek through the gloomiest areas of Western philosophy – all misery, suffering, futility and absurdity) and rewrote it from scratch. The new course starts with the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle, at least – and follows a number of strands of the Western tradition down the the present, to see why it is that we ask the kinds of questions we do about life, meaning and value.
This is, I think, one of the great things about studying the Western philosophical tradition: that even if we have never picked up Plato or Aristotle, we are their heirs nonetheless, and looking at this tradition can cause us to ask why it is that we think the way that we do. Our thoughts, even those that are seem most intimate and private to us, those thoughts that we regard as “our own”, are always conditioned – by innumerable factors, of course, but also significantly conditioned by the history and traditions of thought of which we are a part.
Anyway, so far the course is going well and I’m enjoying teaching it; but behind the whole thing something is gnawing away at me: the thought that when we are asking about the meaning of life, I’m not really sure what it is we are asking. I don’t think that I really understand the question, “What is the meaning of life?” So one thing I’ve been asking my students, and asking myself, is “What is the meaning of the ‘meaning of life?’” The more I think about this, the more I realise that although once I used to wonder a great deal about the meaning of life, these days I really don’t very much at all. I’m interested in life, I’m interested in how things happen, I’m interested in the world and in what it is that is going on, but I don’t think much about the meaning of life.
Of course, there may be things that are meaningful, in a very ordinary sense, within life. The words I am writing mean something. Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat, has a number of meows, and it is possible to distinguish between “I’m wet!”, “I’m hungry!” and “Hello!” as having distinct meanings (at least, in the eyes of this sentimental cat-owner!). But at the same time, you can’t really add up all these meanings (and, of course, the meaning of “meaning” is slippery anyway) to get to some kind of meaning of life.
Whilst thinking about this I hit on an analogy that has some mileage, although I’m not sure about its limits. The analogy is this: that to ask about the meaning of life is like asking about the colour of life. The question simply makes no sense. Life is full of colour, but no one colour belongs to life itself. Life, full of colour, has no colour.
The analogy is also useful in another way, because our colour perception it is the product of a huge set of conditions – our own receptivity to a particular band in the electromagnetic spectrum, our own biological constitution, our own cultural ways of dividing up the visible spectrum, and so on. As Varela et. al. say in their book The Embodied Mind,
Colour categorisation in its entirety depends upon a tangled hierarchy of perceptual and cognitive processes, some species specific and others culture specific… colour categories are not to be found in some pregiven world that is independent of our perceptual and cognitive capacities… [they] are experiential, consensual, and embodied. (p. 171)
The more I think about the strangeness of the question “What is the meaning of life?” the more I wonder if it is really useful. I can recollect the nagging anxiety I had when I used to believe that life had a meaning, a meaning into which I had not yet been (although I hoped to be at some time in the future) initiated. The restless search for the meaning of life is incredibly painful. Even worse, I suspect, is the zealous fervour of conviction that comes with believing that you do know the meaning of life. It’s possible, however, to give up on the meaning of life. This giving up on the idea that life has a meaning is not surrendering to the belief that life is meaningless. It is something more fundamental: seeing into the weirdness of our desire to see life in terms of this polarity between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, life simply does what it does. When I think of this, I cannot help but feel the most incredible relief…
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